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Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

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Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

Many US Presidents have had tense relationships with Congress, but Andrew Johnson was the first to be impeached. At the end of a war, the victor's treatment of their adversary can sow the seeds for a peaceful future or later conflict. As Andrew Johnson attempted to hold the fragile union together, Congress felt he went too far in placating the South and was not protecting the rights of people freed from enslavement. On February 24, 1868, the House of Representatives voted on their belief that Johnson's action had crossed the line into being a crime.

A black and with photograph of President Andrew Johnson President Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson and Congress

President Andrew Johnson was a Southern Democrat who owned enslaved people. Yet, he held the highest office in the US government when Southern states were readmitted to the union after the Civil War. He had remained loyal to the Union while serving as Senator from Tennessee. However, radical Republicans in control of Congress wished to enact strict changes on Southern states. Johnson's leniency towards the region he came from contrasted with Republican's desire for change, which created a tense relationship.

Radical Republicans: Radical Republicans were we small but influential part of the Republican party who believed in ideas of racial equality but also wanted to punish Confederates for leaving the Union.

Lead up to Impeachment

The events leading to Andrew Johnson's impeachment surprised many in Congress. Although the relationship had been tense, no one expected Johnson to defy Congress so strongly. However, Johnson was thoroughly opposed to the nation's future envisioned by Radical Republicans. He frequently vetoed legislation aimed at helping Black people and newly freed slaves.

The Union Army had been occupying the South since the end of the Civil War. A reason for this was to protect the rights of newly freed Black Americans. They also worked to restore Southern states as they sought readmission into the Union.
A black and white photograph of Edwin Stanton StudySmarterEdwin Stanton/Wikimedia Commons

Johnson's Plan

An idea that Johnson had to get around Congress was the removal of Edwin Stanton from his cabinet position. Edwin Stanton was President Andrew Johnson's Secretary of War. Johnson believed that if he got rid of Stanton, it would be easier to recall the soldiers who were occupying the South. Without the army maintaining martial law and protecting Black Americans, Johnson thought it would be easier to go soft on former Confederates.

Tenure of Office Act

To prevent Johnson's plan in March 1867, the Tenure of Office Act was passed by Congress. The act stated that Congress had to agree if the President wanted to remove a member of their Cabinet. Congress created the act specifically due to their tense relationship with Johnson. Radical Republicans believed that Stanton was one of their only allies in the Johnson administration.

First Attempt to Fire Stanton

Despite the new act, Johnson tried to fire Stanton twice. The first time was in August 1867. This did not succeed because Congress took a recess before the Senate could take up the issue. Johnson suspended Stanton and replaced him. Once Congress resumed, they halted his attempt and returned Stanton to office.

A Political Cartoon on the Johnson Impeachment/Wikimedia Commons

Impeachment

What is Impeachment?

Impeachment is the method for convicting government officials of misconduct. The entire process is described in the constitution. It is an important part of maintaining the checks and balances between different branches of government.

Steps to Impeachment

  • The official commits “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors". The exact definition of "high Crimes and Misdemeanors" is not stated in the US constitution, which has caused a lot of debate about exactly what is grounds for impeachment
  • The House of Representatives draws up Articles of Impeachment listing what misconduct the official is being charged with. If the majority vote for charging the official, they are impeached
  • The Senate then holds a trial to determine if the official is actually guilty of the charges. To convict the official, two-thirds must vote to convict the official.
  • If the Senate votes to convict the official is removed from office and usually cannot run again.

Second Attempt to Fire Johnson

The second time was in February 1868. Johnson thought he would be able to challenge the Tenure of Office Act as being unconstitutional. He picked a new person for the job and told Stanton he was fired. Stanton alerted allies he had in the House of Representatives.

Articles of Impeachment

Republicans in the House of Representatives believed that Johnson's actions met the threshold of "high crimes and misdemeanors" required for impeachment. Eight of the articles were specifically about Johnson's attempt to fire Stanton in violation of the Tenure of Office Act and other acts of Congress relating to Reconstruction were also declared to have beeen ignored by Johnson. As President, it was Johnsons role to implement and enforce the acts of Congress, yet he chose to act against them. One of the articles claimed Johnson made speeches defaming Congress, in an attempt to destroy the respect of the people for Congress which it should have been his duty to maintain. Johnson was charged with both ignoring Congress and attempting to reduce its legitimacy within the public opinion.

A black and white illustration of Andrew Johnson's Senate Trial 1868 StudySmarterAndrew Johnson's Senate Trial/Wikimedia Commons

Trial in the Senate

The Senate trial lasted for two months. The House Managers who attempted to argue the case undermined themselves by discussing their antagonistic relationship with Johnson. A former Supreme Court Justice argued for Johnson and tried to state that the Tenure of Office Act gave Congress unconstitutional power over the President. The case proved to be highly partisan, with arguments as much about the personal relationship of Johnson to Congress as about the law itself.

Acquittal in Senate

In the end, Johnson was acquitted. The votes over his fate took place on two separate days, March 16 and 26, 1868. Only a single vote made the difference. Tally was 35 to 19 in favor convicting of Johnson, but the requirement was a two-third majority. While Johnson had been antagonistic towards Congress, the objective legal arguments of the case did not hold up as a crime.

Weakness of the Case

The trial was desicrbed at the time as being very theatrical. Although Republicans in general opposed Johnson, Republican moderates sided with Democrats in that these specific articles of impeachment did not hold up. Many agreed that Johnson's comments about Congress were unbecoming but did not believe that tehy were illegal. Also, the Tenure of Office Act on which many of the articles rested was itself shaky. Johnson's arguments that it was unconstitutional would later be vindicted when the act was repealed in 1887.

Impeachment of Andrew Johnson Impact

Andrew Johnson was the first president to be impeached. The little understood process played out for the first time in a public spectacle. Johnson's party would lose in the 1868 election. The act at the center of it, the Tenure of Office Act, would later be repealed. The nature of what exactly constitutes "high-crimes and misdemeanors" continues to be argues.

Impeachment of Andrew Johnson - Key takeaways

  • President Andrew Johnson and Congress had a tense relationship
  • Radical Republicans in Congress blamed the South for the Civil War and believed in racial equality
  • Johnson was a former slave owner who supported leniency on the South
  • Edwin Stanton was the Secretary of War
  • Union troops occupied the South to protect black people and help rebuild
  • Stanton was seen as an ally by Radical Republicans
  • Johnson wanted to remove Stanton
  • Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act, stating Congress had to approve the President firing members of his cabinet
  • Johnson fired Stanton without approval
  • Congress impeached Johnson for violating the Tenure of Office Act
  • Johnson was acquitted in the Senate trial by one vote

Frequently Asked Questions about Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

It was the first time a president was impeached 

He fired his Secretary of War in violation of the Tenure of Office Act 

The constitutionality of the Tenure of Office Act he violated was debatable and it was later repealed 

Most of the Articles of Impeachment for Andrew Johnson were about him violating the Tenure of Office Act. One article was about him make a speech defaming Congress 

Andrew Johnson was impeached for violating the Tenure of Office Act 

Final Impeachment of Andrew Johnson Quiz

Question

Why was Andrew Johnson impeached?

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He tried to fire Secretary of War, ignoring a new law made by Congress

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Who most strongly opposed Andrew Johnson in Congress?

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Radical Republicans 

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Andrew Johnson was removed from office 


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False 

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How close was the vote to convict Andrew Johnson?

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It only failed to convict by one vote 

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What causes great debate in most impeachments 

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Lack of clarity on what is meant by "High-crimes and Misdemeanors"

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Why did Andrew Johnson want to remove the Secretary of War?

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To make it easier to recall soldiers occupying the South

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What did Radical Republicans want?

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Racial equality and to punish Confederates for the Civil War 

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What act was Andrew Johnson accused of violating?


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The Tenure of Office Act 

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Andrew Johnson was the first US President to be impeached 

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True 

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The Tenure of Office Act was repealed after the impeachment of Andrew Johnson


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True

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What was the defense used by President Andrew Johnson in his Senate trial?

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Answer

The Tenure of Office Act was unconstitutional 

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Where did the trial of Andrew Johnson take place?

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The Senate

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When a President is impeached, he or she is removed from office

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True

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How many U.S. Presidents have been impeached?

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0

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United States Presidents have been removed from office as a result of impeachment.

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True

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Which of the following Presidents was impeached more than once?

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Andrew Johnson

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Most people who are impeached are removed from their leadership position.

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True

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Which part of the government may initiate an impeachment?

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The House of Representatives

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The Senate serves as both the judge and the jury during an impeachment trial.

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True

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Who was the first civil officer to be impeached in the United States?

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William Blount

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Most of the civil officers who have been impeached were

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Presidents

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In order to remove a civil officer from his or her position, 2/3 of the Senate must vote to convict the accused during the senate impeachment trial.

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True

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The following reasons are specified as impeachable offenses by the United States Constitution.

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Answer

Bribery

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